Alan Simpson, who has died aged 87, was half of one of the most talented and socially-perceptive comedy-writing partnerships of post-war Britain. He and Ray Galton created two of Britain’s best-loved comedy series, Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son.
Alan Simpson was born in Brixton to a working class family, the son of a window-cleaner. He attended Mitcham grammar school but left early to work as a shipping clerk.
Simpson and Galton met as teenagers and became close friends, their sense of humour forming the heart of their bond. They sent in a script to Frank Muir and Denis Norden, the most successful broadcasting comedy writers of the time. Then in 1954, Tony Hancock commissioned them to write a series.
The 1950s was the decade when Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan assured the British people that they’d “never had it so good”. With the rise of the supermarket, shopping centres and television, class and class conflict had also allegedly withered away.
But the 1950s was also the decade that witnessed the beginnings of the industrial action and political protests that reached a climax in the 1960s. Playwright John Osborne caught this mood of rebellion in his 1956 play Look Back in Anger.
Hancock, Galton and Simpson revolutionised British comedy by inventing sitcom. They created a character — Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock — whose comedy burst the bubble of complacency to reveal British society as still racked by class conflict and contradiction.
Hancock hates the rich and powerful who frustrate his search for fame and social acceptance. His humour is the collapse of the grandiose into the mediocre, the powerless or the bewildered. He gets his revenge by parodying their arrogance and snobbery.
At its height, the TV series was watched by one third of the British population.
The essence of Steptoe and Son, about a father-and-son rag and bone business, is the inter-generational conflict between “dirty old man” Albert Steptoe, and his son Harold who is full of social aspirations and pretensions reminiscent of Hancock.
At the heart of Galton’s and Simpson’s work is the notion that the best comedy reveals the true nature of the world we inhabit, debunking society’s myths and phoney images.
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